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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Catching the Wind, Part One

Air Date: Week of

Wind has the power to generate both electricity and controversy. Advocates say modern wind turbines provide unlimited, pollution-free power. But critics complain the huge machines scar the landscape and pose a menace to wildlife. On our program this week we explore the advancements in the technology and the debate over wind power. Our story begins in Germany, the nation that leads the world in producing wind energy, but where citizen opposition to the proliferation of windmills across the country and troubles getting offshore windmills sited are threatening that status.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: The wind. You can't see it, but you certainly can feel it, from a soft caress on a summer night to a howling hurricane. It goes by many names: Mariah, the Santa Ana, the Hawk. We speak of winds of change, whispered winds of truth, ill winds and second winds.

[MUSIC "Against the wind..."]

CURWOOD: And, winds that inspire music.

[MUSIC WIND MONTAGE: "We were running against the wind...Everyone knows it's windy...Like a candle in the wind...Dust in the wind...The wind, it cries, very...Wild is the wind...Blow ill wind...The summer wind, warm summer wind..."]

CURWOOD: Untamed powerful winds can destroy; harnessed they can be put to work. Of the dual nature of wind, Henry David Thoreau wrote, "do not forget you are completely at the mercy of the wind and a fickle power it is." Today, the fickle force of the wind can be seen in its power to generate both electricity and controversy. Advocates say modern wind turbines provide unlimited, pollution-free power. But critics complain the huge windmills scar the landscape and pose a menace to wildlife. Today, "Catching the Wind." Living on Earth explores the advancements in the technology and the debate over wind power. Our story begins in the nation that leads the world in turning the wind into electric power: Germany.


CURWOOD: We get our first taste of German wind power on a hill high above the town of Klettwitz, just south of Berlin. On the remains of what was once the largest open pit coal mine in Europe, 44 modern windmills now stand. Manager Henri Louvenhart takes us to the top of one of the giant machines to show how wind power is transforming the German landscape.

LOUVENHART: And you can notice from up here also the contrast between the destruction of the old energy production of the mines, where the landscape was completely altered and changed to the new high tech and alternative source of energy that the wind park provides, which is yet a cleaner and more environmentally-friendly and safer.

Klettwitz wind farm in Germany.

CURWOOD: When it went online in 2001, Klettwitz was the biggest wind park in Europe. Some ten thousand windmills dotted the German countryside then. Today, there are 16,000 and there are plans to double that number by the end of the decade. A goal most, but not all, Germans support.


CURWOOD: In Esch, near Cologne, citizens pack an auditorium to argue the merits of a plan to erect a wind turbine that would rise 643 feet over their village. Many say it's just too big. Others, like Max Bearklutz, say it's just too expensive.

BEARKLUTZ: They say in this area, in the total year of 360 days, this windmill turns only 70 days. That's the capacity of the wind. So, why you need for 70 days production out of a year, a big thing which costs us eight and a half million Euro. [chuckle] You're lucky to have those things. [chuckle]

CURWOOD: The wind turbine planned for Esch was never built. A victory, perhaps, for a small, but growing network of wind power opponents in Germany. At a café in Berlin we met this movement's most vocal leader.

MENGEL: My name is Hans Jochiam Mengel. I am professor of political science at the Free University of Berlin and living in the region of the Uchermach.

CURWOOD: Like many Germans, Hans Mengel favors alternative energy. He's a big advocate of solar, biomass and conservation as ways to reduce pollution and offset global warming. But he has a litany of reasons why he doesn't support wind power. In the first place, it's unreliable, he says. When there's no wind you have no energy. And, second, he believes government incentives and industry subsidies have led to runaway development of wind parks by investors just out to make a fast buck.

MENGEL: When I saw that the planning process, for example, to set up windmills has really been undercut by financial interests and, in my view, by overwhelming financial interests, and you took not any more consideration the protection of the landscape, then I started to think and afterwards to act.

CURWOOD: Hans Mengel took his anti-windmill arguments to the people. He ran for parliament and came in second in regional elections solely on a platform that claimed wind parks are destroying the cultural heritage of Europe.

MENGEL: And, I'm not alone with this opinion. One of the foremost playwrights in Europe and Germany and philosopher, Bota Strauss, he mentioned in a new book that by destroying these countrysides, these views, you are destroying the historic feeling of mankind, of European people. And, this is a very sad thing.

[MUSIC: Berliner Philharmoniker "Allegro con brio" Beethoven Symphony No. 5 (Deutsche Grammophon) 1984]

CURWOOD: Critics charge the proliferation of wind turbines is spoiling the German landscape--the idyllic countryside that inspired writers like Goethe and Schiller and composers from Bach to Beethoven.


CURWOOD: Germans even have a phrase for it: "Verspargelung der Landshaft." Roughly translated, it's a complaint that so many wind turbines are sprouting up, the country is turning into an asparagus field. Proponents of wind energy are heeding the criticism.


CURWOOD: Recently, the German Wind Energy Association agreed to a set of standards for the industry to follow when deciding where to put wind parks. Helmut Rusheisen is with the Nature Protection Society of Germany, an umbrella organization of environmental groups that helped draft the guidelines.

RUSHEISEN: You know, Germany has a long experience in wind energy. We have made mistakes at the beginning. That means we have chosen the wrong sites for windmills, too near to cities or the people are living, or at the wrong places, so that windmills may destroy the landscape. Also, may be dangerous for birds. And, therefore, having made these experiences, we think we should have, if you want to spread the wind energy worldwide and we want to do this, you need clear standards so that you can develop this without harm for environment or human beings.

CURWOOD: To put the anti-wind protest in perspective it's useful to note that according to polls, two-thirds of all Germans support wind energy. Wind power supporters accuse the coal and nuclear lobbies of fueling the protests. And they dismiss critics as "gross-städters," city slickers, who don't want to see the views at their country weekend country homes spoiled. With Germany committed to phasing out nuclear power and pledged under the Kyoto Accord to reduce greenhouse gases, the German Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin says plans to boost wind power will move ahead.

TRITTIN: We launched a renewable energy resources act. It was a decision by cabinet and it was a unanimous decision. And, this has the target to raise the share of electricity in the year 2020 up to 20 percent.

CURWOOD: That's quite a goal considering Germany now produces just six percent of its energy from wind, and, by some accounts, is running out of places to site wind parks on land. So, in the hope of sticking to its goal, the nation has devised two strategies. First: re-powering. That is, replacing aging turbines with more efficient ones. Then, says Peter Ahmens, president of the German Wind Energy Association, all eyes will turn north to the sea.

AHMENS: The idea is the offshore turbines, in 2030, shall produce more electricity, about 15 percent from the total consumption in Germany.


CURWOOD: In the spring of 2004, at a wind park in the North Sea port of Emden, one of the key elements to Germany's offshore energy future was unveiled. Built by Energon it's called the E-112, and at the time, it was the largest wind turbine in the world. From its base to the tip of its rotor blades it soars more than 600 feet into the air. The blades themselves are longer than the wingspan of a 747. The giant E-112 makes the other windmills here in this park look like play toys. This single wind machine can supply electricity for 6,000 homes. The E-112's size and power are meant to impress, not just Germans, but the entire world.

MALE: I want to welcome his Excellency the Ethiopian Minister of Infrastructure Doctor Kassell Laland and from the Republic of Yemen his Excellency the Minister for Electricity Mister Abu Raman Tamoon. Thank you all for coming to take part in this ceremony.


CURWOOD: But, so far, Germany's expansion of wind power to the sea is swamped in bureaucracy and is already behind by two years. Industry officials call the approval process for offshore wind parks a nit-picking nightmare that leaves investors nervous. So far, only eight of 33 proposed offshore projects have gotten the green light. Meanwhile, wind farms are springing up just off the coasts of Britain and especially Denmark where wind turbines are the third most important part of the manufacturing economy, behind only pharmaceuticals and Legos. Even the man who designed the E-112 says the German government's goals are overly ambitious. Energon founder and owner Aloys Wobben says it will take longer than expected because not enough is known about building huge wind parks in deep waters.

WOBBEN: So, we cannot jump now with a big step in the water and say now we are ready. This is too risky. And, if we fail, we damage the wind energy in Europe. So, that is one thing, what is not allowed, that we make this kind of mistakes. I know that the conventional utilities is waiting for that, that they can say, "Ah. Now, once a big company make a mistake, so the wind energy is not reliable." If something goes wrong, they blame me.

CURWOOD: Time is running out for Germany. To meet its goals the nation must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2020. But, by then, most of its nuclear plants will be gone and many conventional generating plants will reach the end of their life spans, leaving a huge gap in the power production this energy hungry nation demands. And, leaving many Germans wondering if catching the wind can fill the void.

[MUSIC: Charles Lloyd "Canon Perdido" Jumping the Creek (ECM) 2005]

CURWOOD: Wind power in the United States is growing by leaps and bounds, but not without its own controversy. Wind in the U.S.A. is just ahead. Keep listening to Living on Earth.




German Wind Energy Association


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